Depression sufferers reveal what not to say to them when they are down

Listening can be a good way to help a person suffering from depression.
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Listening can be a good way to help a person suffering from depression.

Words friends and family use to try and help a person suffering from depression can sometimes feel like extra blows of misery.

Often it's because the words show the helper doesn't understand what the sufferer is really going through.

This hurts because depression is already a lonely experience and feeling others don't get it can amplify the numbness and despair. 

Four sufferers of depression from across the country describe in their own words how the best intentions of friends and family have sometimes left them feeling much worse.

READ MORE:
* A mother's view of depression
* The Kiwi student depression crisis
* Social media images can reveal depression 

 

(Identities have been changed)

Managing depression is not about 'cheering up'.
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Managing depression is not about 'cheering up'.

ANGELA 

I have quite a good friend and she meant well but she said once, 'if you ever need a friend, you can talk to me because friends are better than pills'. I knew she meant well. But I thought, well there is a chemical imbalance in my brain and I actually do need the pills for that you know. 

She just didn't get it. It was a feeling that 'you have no idea; even if I did come to talk to you, how would you be able to understand and help?'

When I told my parents I had depression, they said: 'you are a smart, intelligent girl, no no you don't'. That was incredibly, incredibly difficult to hear. That was a couple of years ago. We are on good terms, but I don't talk to them at all about depression. 

Others try to be well meaning and say 'you have a good life, there are people out there who really have stuff to worry about, just don't worry'. But that just shows me how different my mind is from their's. They don't understand.  

What helps: Being quite gentle with me is helpful. Acting like it's no big deal. Saying 'it's OK, lots of people have it, you are not alone'. I find that really helpful.

CATHERINE 

The last time I was sick a friend said she would come around and take me out for a walk. That was OK. But I wanted to be able to say no. But my friend kept coming around. I said 'no, I'm not feeling very well' and hoped she would respect that and give me some space. She still kept coming around. So basically I had to kick her out and that made me feel terrible. You have to come across like a real witch, and then they feel cross with you.

So that's one thing, I don't like being crowded and pestered when what I would really like is to be able to say 'I am not well and this is what I need' and that can be something or nothing. 

Another one is 'get up and go outside and you will feel better'. They are right, you will feel better. But sometimes getting up and going outside is an extremely difficult thing to do. You haven't brushed your teeth, you haven't washed your hair, and you are going to have to get dressed and you don't even know what clothes are clean anymore. Someone outside in their car on the phone giving you a pep talk and asking how hard can it be to walk around the block, doesn't realise how much effort they are asking for when you are really down.

What helps: Simply saying to me 'one day things will be better'. Texting can be better than a phone call when checking on me. Then I know you are out there and thinking of me but I don't have to do all the explaining that I am unwell on a phone call. 

DOUGLAS 

A very good friend said nothing, absolutely nothing. I stood and said, just letting you know I have been diagnosed with depression, been to a doctor, taking some drugs blah blah blah, and then there was complete silence. Total silence for as long as I would have let it go on. There were minutes and minutes of absolute silence. And I was 'oh well I'm going to go and do something else now'. A few months later he said sorry he never said anything. It was so weird and so hard when you are depressed and a bit down. 

Just occasionally people go 'oh yeah when I missed out on those tickets to the concert, I was really depressed'. They just don't get it. We are not just talking about being pissed off or annoyed about something. It's like if someone has a broken leg and someone with a broken fingernail says 'yeah I know what it's like'.  

Someone said to me once, 'isn't it strange though that it is really a Western thing'. I'm sure it's not. They made it seem like it's a luxury problem to have.

One thing people do say is 'you probably need to do more exercise'. Because they think the endorphins will make everything all right or something. It is true, I probably do need more exercise, but it is not going to cure my depression. It's not seeing it as an illness. It's like saying to someone with asthma, 'go and do a bit more exercise'.

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What helps: Saying 'is there anything I can do to help' or 'can I check in on you'. Ring or text to see how I am doing. 

SAMANTHA 

One of the worst things people have said is 'cheer up'. I understand people are trying to help but when they say 'cheer up' I think they are coming from an angle where they just think you are sad. It makes it worse because you know they don't understand and it can make you quite frustrated. It makes the whole situation a lot worse than it might possibly be.  

One time someone said to me 'what have you got to be depressed about? Life isn't that bad'. All those things, from the perspective of someone suffering from depression, makes it worse by about 10-fold. Looking at my life I thought, 'yeah it is pretty good so why am I depressed?' then you start to feel guilty about being depressed. They don't understand that it is more mental than just a feeling. It's not like taking a few panadol, then feeling better in a couple of hours. It's far from it. 

People have mentioned why don't you do something that makes you feel good. or eat healthy and maybe you need to lose weight. That was kind of a kick in the guts because I've come to them in my time of need and the response I get is that maybe I need to lose weight (and II don't). I feel sorry for people who don't know how to react and know what to say. They say it with best intentions.

What helps: Listen to me, reassure me that I'm not a disappointment and it's OK that I am having a bad day and feel this way. 

MENTAL HEALTH FOUNDATION TIPS

If a person suffering from depression is ready to talk:

* Initiate the talk
​* Listen more than talk. Listening is a way of understanding how someone feels
* Save any suggestions, solutions or advice for a later discussion
* Offer neutral comments such as 'I can see how that would be hard'
* Use appropriate body language. Try to maintain eye contact and sit in a relaxed position.
* Use open-ended questions that can't be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no'.
* When approaching a difficult conversation, stay calm. Be firm, fair and consistent. If you are wrong, admit it. Just taking the time to talk to or be with the person lets them know you care and can help you understand what they're going through.

Where to get help:

The Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812) will refer callers to some of the helplines below:

Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz.

0800 WHATSUP children's helpline – Phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays, and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at whatsup.co.nz.

Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

• Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

 - Stuff

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